“Ideas are a dime a dozen.”
Even the source of the quote itself is difficult to pinpoint. Mary Kay Ash said it once. So did Douglas Horton. And, countless other writers and authors have incorporated the phrase into their own works.
How, then, do writers distinguish themselves? How do we mold common themes or similar plot lines into individual novels or essays that rise to the top of the slush pile or stick in a reader’s mind?
I think of this question each time I sit down to write, or rewrite I should say. When I punch out a first draft of fiction or of an essay, I don’t linger on one sentence or paragraph. It’s in re-reading the draft, when I check to see that the facts or main ideas are there, where I tell myself, “Okay, now make it mine.”
Adding my voice is a critical piece in rewriting, but there are other ways to make a story or an essay unique.
1. Think about the predictability of a story, and then avoid it.
Jody Hedlund wrote on this topic in a guest post on Merrilee Faber’s blog, Not Enough Words. Hedlund discusses how slowing down our process and refusing to be lazy writers helps descriptions, characters, and even plots move beyond cliché into “greater depths of creativity.”
On Wednesday’s, I use “Today’s word” at Wordsmith.org as a writing prompt. The word of the day is typically anything but common in every day conversation. Still, the stories that unfold in my mind can easily end in exactly the way a reader might predict. And, predictability won’t earn me a second read.
2. Know what details to include and which ones to leave out.
Stephen King wrote an article on imagery (recently reprinted in the Aug 2010 issue of The Writer) in which he suggests a writer be choosy when filling in descriptions:
Imagery does not occur on the writer’s page; it occurs in the reader’s mind. To describe everything is to supply a photograph in words; to indicate the points which seem the most vivid and important to you, the writer, is to allow the reader to flesh out your sketch into a portrait.
King’s article highlights the importance of the reader-writer relationship. Like any relationship, I can’t be 100% responsible for making it work. As a writer, I do my part and provide just enough information to spark an image. Then, as King says, the reader experiences the joy of reading, “the joy of seeing in the mind, feeling the fantasy flower in the way that is unique to each individual reader.”
To use a simple example from my own writing, this sentence:
My bedroom wasn’t finished yet, the fancy wallpaper still had to be hung.
doesn’t spark an image as much as this one:
My bedroom sat empty at one end of the hallway, the walls chalky and unfinished. The floor bare of any furniture. It smelled of new construction, but it was uninhabitable.
3. Give an old idea a modern twist.
A while back, I bought the Best American Short Stories 2009 anthology (edited by Alice Sebold). One particular story stands out in my mind as an example of giving an old idea new life. The story, called “Saggitarius” by Greg Hrbek, is about a couple who’s baby is born half human and half horse.
How well does a myth work as a modern short story, you ask? You’ll have to read the story yourself, but here’s an excerpt:
While they were arguing (again) about the surgery, the baby vaulted over the rail of the playpen, as if it were a hurdle to be cleared. They heard his hooves scrabbling on the rubber mat, but were too late to see him jump…When they reached the sunroom, they saw him bounding out the door. Upper half, human half, twisted in their direction; a look of joy and terror in the infant’s eyes. But the equine part would not stop….”
And, one more:
The diagnosis changes every week. Spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy as the cause of the musculoskeletal deformity; the body hair most likely the result of a condition called congenital hypertrichosis….”
Hrbek plays out an old idea within a modern setting with no fear and without looking back. And, he does it so successfully that, by the end of his story you, the reader, believe somewhere in the woods stands a father holding his Sagittarius son and loving him completely for the first time.
How do you distinguish yourself as a writer?